When U-boats entered the Gulf of Mexico, Sonny Downs of Quincy was in their cross-hairs.
On May 19, 1942, a German U-boat in the Gulf of Mexico stalked its prey 50 miles off New Orleans. Captained by 29-year-old Iron Cross and King’s Cross recipient Erich Wurdemann, the submarine set its sights on the freighter Heredia with 62 souls on board. Most of the crew were merchant seamen, but there was also a handful of civilians, including the Downs family, consisting of the parents, Ray and Ina, and their two children, 8-year-old Sonny, and 11-year-old Lucille.
Fast asleep in their berths, the Downs family had no idea there were two torpedoes heading their way. When the ship exploded, chaos ensued and the mother and daughter were separated from the father and son. The following story follows the survival efforts of father and son Ray and Sonny.
Ray “Sonny” Downs now lives in Quincy, Massachusetts, and works as a salesman for a financial company. He is the only American still living to have survived a U-boat attack and his experience is detailed in the newly published book “So Close to Home” (Pegasus Books, May 2016), coauthored by New York Times bestselling author Michael J. Tougias of Plymouth. The story of the Downs family is contrasted against that of the daring U-boat commander, Erich Wurdemann, who pushed his crew to the limit of endurance as he laid waste to ships throughout the Gulf of Mexico.
The following is an excerpt from the book, reprinted with permission from the author.
Ray and Sonny Downs watched as the ship they had been voyaging on, the Heredia, slowly sank beneath the seas. The father and son were clinging to a four-foot-square balsa wood life raft along with ship’s captain Edwin Colburn and civilian George Conyea. It was 2 a.m, with just a sliver of a moon, and the swells were large but gentle. The group could still see the U-boat’s searchlight illuminating the ocean, which was now filled with debris from the ship. At any minute they expected disaster to strike in the form of bullets from the submarine.
Conyea started to say something, but Ray suddenly yelled, “I can hear my wife shouting! I’m going back!”
“You can’t go back,” hollered Captain Colburn. “You’ll never make it!”
Conyea, too, shouted at Ray, “The sub is still there, I can see its light!”
“I don’t care,” boomed Ray, “I heard Ina!”
“You can’t be sure it was her!” pleaded the captain.
Sonny was terrified that his father would leave him and never make it back. He watched in fear as his dad moved from the middle of the raft to the outer edge. Conyea positioned himself next to Ray, grabbing Ray’s life jacket. “Your son needs you here!”
Ray swatted Conyea’s arm away, then looked back at Sonny. He was torn between keeping his son alive and making a dash for the voice that he was sure was Ina’s.
“Let’s listen,” reasoned Captain Colburn, “and see if we hear another shout.”
Ray moved back toward Sonny.
The four survivors didn’t speak as the raft drifted farther from the U-boat.
Finally the captain broke the silence. “The sub has moved off. I can’t see its light.”
“Can anyone see the ship?” asked Conyea.
Ray tried to put Ina out of his mind and focus on saving his son.
“We can sit on the edge of the raft,” said Ray to the others, “but we gotta spread out.” The balsa raft was hollow in the middle, like a box with no bottom.
Conyea took two strokes and perched on the edge opposite Ray, while the captain, his face in a tense grimace because he didn’t know how to swim, slowly inched to the side just to the right of Ray and carefully pulled himself up. Sonny went to the side of the square to the left of his father, pulling himself up and into a sitting position. Because Sonny only weighed a third as much as the other men, his side of the raft rode out of the water, while the captain’s end rode so low that the water almost reached his neck.
“This won’t do!” bellowed Ray. “One wave and we’re going over. Mr. Conyea, you and I gotta scoot over closer to Sonny’s side.”
This simple move helped balance the raft. However the weight of the three men plus Sonny was enough to submerge the raft a few inches, so that from the waist down the survivors’ bodies were underwater. It was a delicate balancing act, but at least they had their upper torsos relatively dry, which would help ward off hypothermia.
Ray glanced at Sonny, worried sick that the boy would be the first victim of the ocean because of his small size.
“Are you cold, son?”
“I’m okay, Dad.”
“Well, if you get really cold, just tell me, and you can sit on my lap and I’ll wrap my arms around you.”
The air temperature was in the upper 60s and the water temperature about 75 degrees Fahrenheit. The relatively warm temperature of the ocean may not sound dangerous, but it is far short of the 98.6-degree optimal body temperature; and, making matters worse, water draws off a person’s heat about 25 times faster than the same air temperature.
Ray vowed to himself that he’d do whatever it took to keep the boy warm, even if it meant hoisting him out of the water and somehow putting him on his shoulders. In the darkness, Ray could faintly see Sonny’s shape but not the features of his face because high thin clouds blocked out most of the light from the stars and moon. Ray blamed himself for risking the voyage on the Heredia. A minute later Sonny, as if reading his father’s thoughts, asked, “Will Mom and Lucille be all right?”
“They should be fine,” lied Ray. “They are probably floating on a raft just like us.”
“That’s right,” said Captain Colburn, “the ship had three rafts.”
“Where were we when the ship was torpedoed? How far from port?” asked Conyea of the captain.
“About forty miles out from New Orleans. To the southwest,” said the captain.
Ray turned his head in the direction of the captain and asked, “When do you think help will come?” Captain Colburn hesitated before answering, concerned about saying anything negative in front of Sonny. “Just tell us the truth,” said Ray. “We’re going to be fine no matter how long we have to sit on this raft.”
“Okay,” said Colburn. “We were operating on radio silence, but that doesn’t really matter because I think the section of the ship where the radio was took a direct hit from one of the torpedoes. So the authorities on shore only know that we were scheduled to reach New Orleans about 6 a.m. I’m guessing that by 8 a.m. they will become concerned. One of the patrol planes will start looking for us.”
Conyea, who was from New Orleans, added, “and we might get lucky. There are probably several Coast Guard and shrimp boats in the area, and one of them may find us at dawn.”
“You’re right, Mr. Conyea,” said Ray, “just gotta sit here patiently until the sun comes up.”
Ray nodded. Then each survivor settled in for a long night, lost in their own thoughts. Ray tried to make an honest assessment of their situation. They had no food or water. Once the sun came up, their thirst would increase, and dehydration would wear them down with each passing hour. The weather was calm, with just a light breeze, and for that Ray was thankful. If the seas had been up like the day before none of the four survivors would have been able to hang on to the flimsy raft. They were lucky indeed to be in gentle swells rather than breaking waves. However, they had no flares should a plane or patrol boat appear on the horizon. After days of sailing from South America, Ray had an appreciation for the vastness of the ocean, and he felt the little raft was like the proverbial needle in a haystack: it was going to be difficult to find. And a person in the water without a raft would be damn near impossible to locate. Ray said a silent prayer that Ina and Lucille were together on a raft and not alone in the endless void of the sea.
Sonny, his father, Mr. Conyea and the captain drifted in the ocean for 16 more hours. For several of those hours, seven six-foot sharks circled the raft, coming so close as to brush against Ray’s legs. When all hope seemed lost, a Coast Guard PBY airplane spotted them at dusk. The pilot alerted a shrimp boat, which rescued the foursome. The U-boat that sunk the Heredia sent seven ships to the bottom of the sea in the Gulf of Mexico, before running low on fuel and crossing the Atlantic to return to its base in Nazi-occupied France.